Whangārei's hospitality sector is ready to welcome thousands that will flock to a "buffet" of sporting extravaganza in town, starting with rugby's double-header at Semenoff Stadium today.
After the disappointment of level 2 lockdown when just 100 rugby fans were invited to Northland's first home Mitre 10 Cup game against Manawatu last month, there's no limit on how many can attend today's
game in Okara.
Northland Kauri play North Harbour prior to the Taniwha versus Taranaki clash, and the hosts expect a bumper crowd on what is forecast to be a fine day - with the men's and women's hockey finals also being played in Kensington about the same time.
The maximum crowd for Semenoff Stadium is set at 18,500, which encompasses the whole embankment area, and the Northland Rugby Union will sell as many tickets as the capacity allows under level 1.
As at 3pm yesterday, well over 3000 tickets for the corporate box, main grandstand and terraces were sold but NRU chief executive Cameron Bell said he expected more to be snapped up closer to kick-off.
"The boxes in the lounge have basically all sold out, there are a few premier dining ones left which is the first time it has happened, and the season-ticket holders are coming back in droves.
"It's really the walk-up crowd that's the unknown. If we can get somewhere near the 10,000 to 12,000 mark, it would be phenomenal. Our message is to make sure they come early to see the women play because they play with such excitement and passion."
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Bell said being at level 1 was a massive relief and both the Semco Northland Mitre 10 Cup and Semco Northland Farah Palmer Cup teams were working hard and very excited to play in front of their fans.
"The forecast is good, which makes the day even more exciting. We're not getting ahead of ourselves in any shape or form but both teams are punching above their weight and are sending a message to the rugby community outside the region that they deserve to be in the top flight.''
The scope for after-match dining and entertainment in town after the games was also perfect timing and would be a shot in the arm for the local businesses, especially after a tumultuous last few months since the lockdown.
"Without any disrespect to the other codes, rugby provides a real opportunity for the community to mobilise and the fact is we've got two high-quality games," Bell said.
Operations manager at McMorrissey's Irish Pub and Eatery in Whangārei, Amitesh Chandra, said the slow build-up of crowds from last weekend showed more people were keen to enjoy themselves in town once level 2 restrictions were lifted.
"We're ready. I already have a booking of 50 people from 5pm this Saturday for a private function. Last weekend, people queued up outside wanting to get in. I already had 200 and then I was doing five in, five out."
Manager of Pure Bar and Grill, Jeff Harrison, said it was good to see crowds returning, which would be good for the whole town and not just the hospitality sector.
"Nice to see people dispersing after the game. We've had a few work functions after level 1 which is good heading into Christmas," he said.
Chris De'Ath of Bocky Boo Gelato on Cameron St said anything that brought people into the city was good.
"The weather is good, people are starting to come since the beginning of September, and I think it's going to be a nice summer. I absolutely believe in Whangārei and that's why we moved up here."
De'Ath lived in Christchurch and worked for a time in Australia's Northern Territory before opening Bocky Boo Gelato in September last year.
He's opening a new outlet adjacent to the present one later this month.
The nearby Far Camel Cafe on Quality St is also prepared to welcome rugby and hockey fans this evening.
"We're so lucky to have all sports up and running and we've been busy since restrictions got lifted. The more people, the merrier. Having sports is such a big boost to local businesses," owner Idan Ben-Ze'ev said.
Mitre 10 Cup match will be special for five Northland Taniwha players.
Prop Ross Wright will play his 100th game in the Cambridge Blue, while Mathew Wright, Kara Pryor and Sam Nock will run on to the field for their 50th matches.
Mid Northern flanker Rob Rush will make his debut if he takes the field.
Head coach George Konia has again selected an experienced front row in veteran Ross Wright, skipper Jordan Olsen and Coree Te Whata-Colley.
Workaholic Josh Goodhue and Fijian Temo Mayanavanua from Waipū form the second row, while chief ball scavengers Tom Robinson and Kara Pryor are the blindside and openside flankers respectively.
Thunderous force Matt Matich completes the loose forward trio at No 8.
The trusted halves pair of Sam Nock and Dan Hawkins will spearhead the Northland attack, while Scott Gregory slots in at wing along with Pisi Leilua.
Rene Ranger, who played out of his skin in the side's win over Counties Manukau last weekend, teams up with Blake Hohaia at centre.
Mathew Wright mans the fullback berth.
The match kicks off at 4.35pm after the women's game at 2.05pm.
Tickets can be bought from www.taniwha.co.nz/Mitre-10-Cup/Buy-Tickets-1 or at the ground.
(THIS PAR FOR PRINT ONLY)
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